The horror of the Great Plague of London

I’ve been on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs documentary series talking about the scandals that have enveloped various kings in history. This was the programme on Charles II and his less than gallant handling of the Great Plague in London. Basically, he fled the city as thousands of Londoners perished of the bubonic plague – a truly grim way to go!

What Londoners died of in 1791

One book in my collection of antiquarian guides to London dates from 1791 – and in the appendices details what Londoners in that year died of.  If any of you are medics, I need your help working out what some of these illnesses are. I’m aware that “lethargy” meant a stroke for example. But what about “rising of the lights” as a cause of death. Sounds very dramatic – if it’s painless, I’d like to go that way please.

So – what did Georgian Londoners die of in 1791?  By far the biggest cause is “Consumption” – which could mean tuberculosis but also other chest related diseases. Not surprising given that TB was incurable. Also, the air was thick with poisonous fumes from domestic chimneys and factories located right in the heart of the city, giving rise to other pulmonary diseases. “Convulsions” account for 4,485 deaths and various fevers swept away 2,769 Londoners including Malignant Fever, Scarlet Fever, Spotted Fever and “Purples”.

Gout was like a devil gnawing at your foot - James Gillray cartoon
Gout was like a devil gnawing at your foot – James Gillray cartoon

Gout only accounted for 58 people – but it was a very common problem at the time. Large scale port wine drinking didn’t help matters. Gentlemen of distinction could be seen hobbling in agony round the city and would have to prop their legs up on an Ottomon to get the acid flowing out of their feet. Leaving their club or the coffee house, they’d need a sedan chair to take their pained bodies back home.

One of you doctors can describe Headmouldshot, Horseshoehead and Water in the Head that struck 44 individuals. Measles was still a killer – as was flu – but how on earth did eleven people succumb to “Evil”!!?  “Surfeit” I assume means eating way too much and keeling over. And “ague” is malaria in modern parlance – a condition which prevailed with undrained marshes, especially to the east of London and in Essex.

Infant mortality was horrendous in the 18th century.  The biggest number of deaths in 1791 were under two years of age by a big margin – 6,138. The next largest figure is 2,086 between 40 and 50 years of age. Contrary to what you might assume, plenty of people made it into their fifties and sixties and 460 people died that year between 80 and 90 years of age. Seven were a hundred years old while one was reputedly 113 years old.

There were 35 executions in Middlesex and Surrey, which covered much of what is now called London. In 1791, pirates were still being put to death at Wapping. The gallows were deliberately placed at the low-water mark to be viewed by incoming boats. However, the guidebook says the habit of leaving the body to be washed over by three river tides had been discontinued.